The late nineteenth century British stage was hopelessly confused. It couldn’t decide whether it was London’s principle source of entertainment—mainstream and respectable enoughfor Queen Victoria herself to patronize—or the seedbed of all corruption and deviance in Victorian society. At the center of this split identity was the actress, a figure both well-beloved (in the case of stars like Ellen Terry) and the literal embodiment of everything a Victorian women shouldn’t be—loose, sexualized, and working (in the case of her contemporary, Olga Nethersole). Because of this liminal position, Victorian actresses thus create a fascinatingmicrocosm in which to study the implications of performativity and performance in late nineteenth century society. I argue that stars like Terry and Nethersole, though they did so by opposite means, deliberately performed multiple roles, both on stage and in society, in order to enjoy the autonomy they craved—one unavailable to the majority of Victorian women.The biographies of both actresses reveal compelling paradoxes. Terry, though respectedenough to be compared to the “ideal” Victorian woman (the proverbial “Angel in the House”), was in reality a fallen woman. Olga Nethersole, on the other hand, built her career on playing fallen woman roles, yet lived an upright and unremarkable private life. Despite these differences, however, both women rose to great heights of fame and earned careers, funds, and power overtheir lives and relationships that most women of the century would never dream of. This thesis investigates the anomaly of autonomous Victorian actresses through the lens of performance theory. Drawing upon the concepts of liminality and social performativity, introduced largely by performance studies scholars like Richard Schechner and Marvin Carlson, I work toward a practical connection between performance on the stage and performativity in society that remainslargely unexplored in the field of Victorian theatrical studies. Ultimately, I am shedding light onthe paradoxical, dual function of performance; as demonstrated in the lives of these two actresses, it has the potential to simultaneously reinforce societal norms and to protest against them.



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Humanities; Comparative Arts and Letters



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Ellen Terry, Olga Nethersole, Victorian theatre, performance theory, actresses, liminality



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Classics Commons